I have been spending a perfectly healthy amount of time, as a 30 year-old adult, thinking about DC and Marvel’s upcoming multiverse smashing summer blockbuster events that will change everything. Everything, you guys! Sixty plus years of established continuity, reboots and crossovers all being mined again and again in perpetuity. But beyond the carnival barking bombast and the event ennui, all this contemplation has led me to an idea that neither of these publishers have yet tried that truly would be an audacious, never before seen event: eliminate their shared universe.
You heard me. Full disclosure: I am an only child and have a predisposition towards not sharing. I am suggesting that for a period of time, say 8-12 months, the Big Two publish their full stable of characters in their respective series allowing for focused, fully structured stories without being handcuffed by an editorial need to maintain a larger congruent universe. Granted, the idea that the myriad of spectacular (or amazing or uncanny or uh…justice-y) characters all co-exist in an immense imaginary sandbox, meaning that virtually any one of them can collide into the other at any moment, is kind of the whole point of the Big Two to begin with. In fact, it’s what made them so damn unique way back when. But, folks, ask yourself if the novelty of the X-Men wearing Reed’s unstable molecule-laced costumes or Star Labs having a facility in every city or the countless times heroes met only to fight immediately over a misunderstanding only to join together to beat the real bad guy, hasn’t worn off juuuussst a bit. What started out as a wondrous nigh-infinite realm of possibility has over sixty years started feeling a little cramped. Or maybe just a little too beholden to rules that hamper an individual story more than aid it. It used to be, when these characters were new the idea of this popular character coming to blows with another popular character were unequivocally awesome and the tangible realization of every schoolyard hypothesis. Hell yes The Flash is faster than Superman; I have the proof right here in my hands! Good times.
But then as time progressed the idea of having all these beings cohabit the same space, even from a practical editorial standpoint, began to feel a little off. Why can’t I use Batman in this Justice League story? Oh, because over here he’s fighting Darkseid so he’s off-planet right now. Why can’t we use the Infinity Gauntlet in this story? Well, this other story over here just put it in the Negative Zone and it’d be silly to bring it back so soon. Now, look, from a creative standpoint these types of rules can be challenging in a positive way, forcing creators to come up with newer and hopefully better ideas than just rehashing pre-existing ideas. I get that, but how many of you feel like that’s what we’ve been getting? Throw into the mix a book that seemingly looks like it’s off in its own world, carefully building its own unique tone and individual story only to have it thrown into the most recent line-wide event and lose all momentum.
Let’s take a look at where a shared universe is succeeding: the movies. Why is that still so appealing where in the comics it’s beginning to feel limiting? Well, for starters it’s virtually never been done before. Marvel Studios approach to releasing individual blockbusters summer after summer culminating in the pièce de résistance The Avengers was virtually unheard of. It was new and it was BIG and it was exciting because it was brilliantly constructed in a boldly innovative fashion. While comic books fans may get a kick out of the fan service, those knowing winks that say “hey, you know who Toro is right? Here ya go”, for the vast majority of the viewing public they are witnessing the construction of this joint universe in real-time. They are looking up at the screen and noticing that reference that Thor just made to something that happened in that Iron Man movie is the neatest fucking thing they’ve ever seen because it ain’t like Harry Potter has been dropping lines like “I’m so happy to see Katniss next week after I get through this adventure.” In the comics though, that sort of thing is par the course.
But not all shared universes in comics have lost their luster. The Valiant Universe is another good example of the thrill induced by the interwoven intricacies running throughout each of their books, with Toyo Harada and the Eternal Warrior seemingly in all places at once. There is of course the Mignolaverse, the forebodingly atmospheric home to Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. that continues to add occult details to its rich history. These are examples of universes that are still building however (and yes, I’m aware we’re pushing twenty years for Hellboy now) and not of universes fully built on a sixty year-old foundation. Not only built, but built to such a degree that they seemingly can’t stop trying to tear it down in order to rebuild something virtually identical or split it into multiple versions of itself. And then there’s Image. Arguably publishing the highest quality books on the market, winner of Best Publisher accolades across the board, their titles need not be interconnected in any way to achieve relevance and success. I mean sure, Image United is a thing that I guess proves that wrong, but I don’t think I can even finish this sentence with a straight face so let’s move on. Comparing Image to Big Two isn’t quite apples to apples, sure, but there’s something to that basic model of having an entire line of books fully free to explore their own unique world and set of circumstances without being hampered by shoehorning in someone else’s story elements simply because the illusion of inter-connectivity needs to be maintained.
I’m not saying it needs to be forever, but it’d be an interesting break to take. Hell, emblazon every cover with an “Isolation” banner across the top and run it for a year. “But Alex,” you ask, “if everything always returns to the status quo no matter how radical an idea is implemented, then what’s the point of doing it? What’s the point of ever-changing anything?” Firstly, chill out you nihilist, damn. I am not claiming this is a sound business strategy. Far from it. The ability to throw Wolverine into a slumping or new series to boost sales is awfully useful no doubt. It also has the potential to turn away new readers, who may be eager to explore how all these larger than life characters are tied to each other. But it need not dwindle down the number of books the Big Two put out each month (which is a whole other thing that should happen) it simply allows for a new set of rules to artistically challenge the creators. Let these larger than life characters burrow and then stretch out into their own worlds and define themselves, for a time, free from the shackles of existing in the shadows of other equally massive characters being defined by a completely different set of creators. If the titles are separated for a time, left to exist purely in a world invented just to accommodate their uniqueness, then wouldn’t bringing them all together in a massive event once every few years have significantly more impact? Sharing means caring, but let’s not forget there’s such a thing as over-sharing.